Wild River: Fitzmaurice River, NT

Destinations: Fitzmaurice River, NT

An epic journey up a wild river fraught with peril in the form of killer rockbars, whirlpools and giant crocs resulted in some great fishing for DAVID GREEN and a couple of mates. Along with a swag of salty barras, the boys experienced an unforgettable adventure in an untouched part of Australia that few other fishos have ever seen.

REMOTE rivers can be inspiring places to fish. When a river is hard to get to, is full of dangerous rock bars, has virtually no legal road access and is hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town, the chances are that not too many people will venture there. The Fitzmaurice River in the Northern Territory fits all of the above criteria, and has a reputation as being the fastest flowing river in the NT on big spring tides, flowing at speeds of up to nine knots. Even mother ship operations avoid the place, largely due to the many hull and prop destroying rock bars that litter the course of this fabulous river. A mate of mine tried to get to the upper Fitzmaurice a few years back, but prior to my trip he said to me “they don’t have rock bars on the Fitzmaurice, they have waterfalls”. And having now been there, that is pretty true. This is the riskiest, scariest river I’ve been to, but the journey we made was well worth it. The magnificent country of the upper Fitzmaurice Gorges and the barra fishing made this an outstanding trip.

I’d planned to go to the Fitzmaurice with my friend Peter Washington several times previously, but unseasonal rains and incorrect tides had turned us back. Washo has been to this river many times, and his meticulous nature makes him an ideal skipper for the journey. Washo, another mate Chris and I travelled 270km in the tinny from launching to the campsite. We left before sunrise and arrived at the campsite late in the afternoon. This trip involved a fair bit of open sea crossing and some very careful negotiation. When we arrived at the mouth of the Fitzmaurice there was a big tide boring in through a maze of rock. It was about 30m deep in places and there were whirlpools that could easily engulf a small boat. It was a ferocious beast of a river that could suck you in and spit you out if you made even a slight navigational error. I could see why the place is a mothership’s nightmare.

As we moved upstream the river narrowed, and there were rock bars stretching right across the entire river. The water flowed hard over the rocks but as the tide rose all the boulders disappeared in an eerie silence as the river filled and we slowly passed over a river bed of jagged rock. Here and there barras moved under the boat and slowly the river transformed into the gorge country full of ferns, palms and long shadows. While a beautiful place, it was hard to relax until we negotiated the last major rock bar. We set up camp at the end of a long pool where the sand flowed out of the hills as the final vestige of the recent big wet. Let me tell you that 270kms is a long way in an open tinny totally full of jerry cans.

At night it was cold. Fog rolled across the river in the early morning, and we all anticipated the fishing that would come the next day in such a remote location. Next to the camp the river looked like a bass stream, with water tumbling through a long rock bar of rapids. The Fitzmaurice is a spring fed river that flows all year, but this cold runoff is devoid of bait and has little life. The river runs out of hard red rock and has few billabongs in its catchment. Despite this, it holds thousands of long lean silver barra that move up from the sea into the river proper. At the camp site I pinned a nice barra casting from the back of the moored boat on my third cast. It went careering downstream before spitting the lure back at me. I then caught a smaller fish that I wrestled aboard. After the fog lifted a bit we moved downstream and worked through the gorge country casting lures at massive boulders. It was a very special place, certainly one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever visited. We picked our way through the snags catching a barra here and there, as well as some good freshwater jacks.

Along a steep muddy bank that the wind was blowing on to there was a distinct mud line, and this produced bites straight away. Wherever you chase barras, from impoundments to feeder creeks, a mud line is probably the best card in the pack when it comes to finding barra stacked up. We caught about 30 decent silver chrome fish from this set of sunken reeds, with most of the bites coming in the colour change. The fish varied from 40cm rats to big chrome salties over 80cm long. We ended up we catching about 150 barra from this mud line during our trip. Strangely, the barra tended to be holding on trees and sunken spindly bushes rather than rock bars, and once we worked this out the catch rate improved markedly. At first we spent hours on prime looking rock bars casting and trolling for very few fish. I don’t think I’ve cast a barra lure into better looking  water without getting a bite, but this was probably due to an absence of mullet and a cold river running hard from the upstream fresh water springs. But when you found a sunken spindly bush or a mud line, the fish came thick and fast. In previous trips Washo had caught plenty of monsters up to 128cm from the rock bar areas, but on this trip they were strangely quiet. Chris caught a swag of good fish on Classic Barra 10s, his favourite lure.

Each day we arrived back at camp just before sunset so we could wash in one of the cold and relatively croc free feeder creeks upstream from the camp. We ate well on barra and jack fillets each night with a range of pasta and vegetables, and sat around the campfire in heavy jackets as the cool dew of evening descended. At the eastern end of the Kimberley, the escarpment of red rock surrounded us on all sides. In terms of isolation, it would be pretty hard to get to a more remote place. Apart from the odd scrub bull, there was no evidence at all of human habitation of the area. There was a profusion of bird life, and at dawn each morning we were woken by a sky full of screeching corellas. Each day the tides got slightly bigger, and mooring the boat under over hanging trees could be precarious. Under the careful stewardship of Washo we had no dramas, which was reassuring considering our only contact with the outside world was the EPIRB in the boat.

It was a fascinating river to fish, and quite strange in many ways. Fantastic looking back eddies, rock bars and gravel beds only produced the very odd fish, yet you would stumble across a seemingly “C Grade” looking snag of sticks and find plenty of barras. We started to pull some nice 10 kilo models out of a few of the spots where Washo had caught big fish previously, and in a fairly uninteresting long strait I hooked a seemingly smallish fish that ran straight at me then jumped to show itself as a beast around 100 to 110cm long. Chris took a great shot of this fish jumping at the exact second the lure came out, and despite peppering the area with casts over the next few days there were no more bites forthcoming.

The Fitzmaurice has a large population of saltwater crocodiles but they are quite shy and take to the water whenever a boat comes near. A few years back Washo was trolling out of a 3.7m tinny when he heard a loud commotion further down the bank where a massive croc had grabbed one of the cattle drinking at the water’s edge. When a croc can eat a cow it looks a whole lot bigger from a small tinny. The big crocs slid into the water well before we saw them, but the smaller models nonchalantly sun baked on the rocks as the days warmed up.

Each day we were drawn to the long stretch of bank with the muddy edge, and each time we fished it the effective method changed. On the first day the fish crunched noisy rattling lures like Chris’s beloved Classic 10s, then on the second day casting deep divers like River Rats and deep diving Jonesy’s proved effective. The secret was to crank the lure hard to maximum running depth, and then let it float back up on a slack line. The bites generally came as the lure slowly floated back to the top. On the third day they didn’t want this technique, but Rattlin’ Spots and vibe style lures were instantly hammered. Even in such a remote location, the fish seemed to quickly wise up to a particular method yet respond in an almost extravagant pattern once you got the right presentation. Soft plastics were strangely ineffective throughout the trip which. Perhaps the lack of noise reduced the effectiveness of this normally deadly method.

From our camp upstream it was important to carefully judge the tide for the run home, or you’d be locked in a river with a rock bar barrier at either end of a particular section. Most of the rock bars ran right across the river and were like a water fall on the bottom of the tide. The best fishing time was on the run out, and the run in was generally pretty quiet. As the tide rose like a watery blanket the river swelled, filled and went silent and the boat would rise over what was a waterfall half an hour earlier and we’d make our way back to camp. I’ve never been in a river where there are so many things to hit, and it is a testament to Washo’s driving skills that we never hit a single rock when there were a million opportunities to do so.

We also caught some nice fish back at the campsite, with Washo catching the biggest at 86cm. Every barra we caught was a long fit silver salty looking barra, and the eating quality was superb. We at fish every night and left the meat we’d bought along frozen in the boat’s portable fridge. I’d also previously heard that freshwater jacks were not good eating but the ones we tried from the Fitzmaurice were great. One night Washo was telling us how good archer fish were to eat, and how he used to catch and cook them on the banks of the Katherine River when he was a kid. The next evening I cooked a couple in alfoil on the coals of the fire and they were very sweet and tasty.

This was a very special trip and the river certainly lived up to my expectations. The beauty of the remoteness was always tinged with the reality of the risk of getting there, where one minor error could lead to major problem in getting home. In all we caught 243 barra for the trip which averaged at roughly 40 per day up to around 90cm long. However the fishing numbers are in no way reflective of the satisfaction of the trip. It was good to go to a place where even the most fearless of guides would not venture to. The magnificent country around the Fitzmaurice Gorge is staggeringly beautiful but only seen by those with a passion for the extreme and difficult type of trip that is required to get into the place.

When we broke camp and loaded up the tinny with fuel drums, tents and gear there was little space for crew, and as the incoming tide rose over the treacherous rocks we made our way 270kms home on a big tide and a strangely quiet river. It was a privilege to visit Washo’s favourite river and a fantastic adventure.

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